Transcending Trauma: from ancient Temples to recent Holocaust

Tu B'Av in Our Generation -- by Avi Katz

[This essay is appearing also in “The People and the Word” column of the Jerusalem Report. The graphic is by its illustrator, Avi Katz.  For an extraordinary Email conversation initiated by The Shalom Center about how the Jewish people might transcend the trauma of the Holocaust, click here.]

We are approaching Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the midsummer month of Av (August 8-9, 2011), the day of profound Jewish mourning for the destruction of two ancient Temples in Jerusalem.  On that day, tradition urges every Jew to behave as if a member of her/his own family had just died. We fast from sunset to sunset, we sit on the floor, we cover mirrors, we drape the Ark of the Torah and the Torah itself in black, we wail the text of the “Book of Lamentations.”

 And then, on the first Shabbat after this outpouring of grief (August 12-13, 2011), Jewish tradition directs us to read the prophetic passage from Isaiah  (Chapter 40) that begins, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami –  comfort you, comfort you, my people!”   And this is the first of seven haftarot “of consolation” for the seven Sabbaths  that lead us to the edge of Rosh Hashanah.

 Why did the rabbis assign these seven prophetic readings of comfort and consolation?  Why did they teach that the very day of disaster was the day on which the Messiah is born, not yet revealed and active in the world but bringing a flash of hope?

 Were the rabbis searching for a way to transcend the communal trauma of losing the Temple to superior military force, and did they hope these teachings would light the way to rebirth of the Jewish people?

 The destruction they were remembering was the second  – the one brought about by the Roman Empire. The day of fasting, grieving, lamenting – Tisha B’Av –was the same midsummer day of burning heat that was traditionally connected with the destruction of the first Temple, by the Babylonian Empire, 600 years before.

 And at that time as well,  there was a path laid out for moving beyond grief and collective trauma to consolation, even celebration: Tu B’Av, the 15th day of Av, the Full Moon. If you count Tisha B’Av as Day One, Tu B’Av is Day Seven – a kind of Shabbat. On that day, young women danced in the fields wearing white dresses, beckoning to young men of their choice to become their husbands. 

 Both these practices –- the dancing and sexuality in a biblical Judaism that was focused on the body, the prophetic words in a rabbinic tradition focused on words –- reached toward a way of transcending the collective trauma of suffering military defeat and spiritual disaster.

 What might these practices teach us in our own generation? 

 Seventy years ago, the Jewish people was plunging into a physical and spiritual disaster perhaps even worse than the two destructions of the Temples. There has been a great outpouring of history, memory, anger, grief  – even a sacred day, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day), devoted to reliving the experience. Sacred trips to Auschwitz, to Yad VaShem in Jerusalem and the US Holocaust Museum in Washington. Our own generation’s efforts toward a kind of Tisha B’Av.

  Some survivors of trauma suffer “post-traumatic stress syndrome” — hyper-responding to perceptions of danger (even when the perceptions are unrealistic) with flashes of rage, violence, homicide, suicide. 

When the trauma becomes the central cultural phenomenon of a whole community, not only the physical survivors of the original trauma may suffer in these ways, but sometimes the whole community – unless there is consolation, unless the trauma is transcended.

Where then is our generation’s analogue to the ancient modes of consolation and transcendence, Tu B’Av and the Seven Sabbaths?

The Knesset, by setting Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) 10 days before Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day), has in effect asserted that the day of independence is itself the day for transcending the Holocaust. But the tone of Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) is still suffused with the trauma itself. The sense that it is necessary for the state still to be on guard, fearful of attack and focused on military might to defend itself, in some ways reiterates the trauma rather than transcending it.

 What would it take today to unify the dances of Tu B’Av and the consolations of Nachamu? Should Jews everywhere be setting aside each year a day, a week, seven weeks – for celebrations of music, art, dance, theater, storytelling, all focused on the birth of a new Judaism?

 When the rabbis taught that the day of the destruction of the Temple was the day on which Messiah was born, were they hinting that in the empty space cleared by destruction of the Temple, it was Rabbinic Judaism itself that was fully born? 

 As our traditional liturgy says, “ Blessed are You,  YHWH,  Who gives life to the dead.”  This truth is known to every human community that experiences winter and spring, seed going underground to seeming death and sprouting again into life. This truth was known to the Jewish people in its rebirth after the destruction of the first and second Temples. It is a new life, a new culture, that is born not only from death, but from the depth of our mourning over death – and from our transcending of that trauma.

 In our generation, it is the universal Temple of all humanity, the Earth itself, that stands in danger of burning and destruction. So in our generation, we need to birth a Transformative Judaism committed not only to renew the Jewish people but to join with other communities to heal and transform our world. 

 We Jews could both give ourselves new life and bring new wisdom to the rebirth of our planet ––by making real Isaiah’s words (40: 5) from the Nachamu haftara: “The radiance of the Breath of Life shall become visible, so that all flesh shall see it – as one.”

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